Louise B. Miller Ph.D.

The Mind Body Connection

Removing the Stigma Associated With Mental Illness

People should not feel ashamed to seek treatment for mental health.

Posted Jun 16, 2020

Source: Wokandapix/Pixabay

There still seems to be a stigma associated with mental illness. According to Webster’s Dictionary, a stigma is “a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people has about something.” We must remove the embarrassment and shame associated with mental illness that often leads to discrimination.

Why is a stigma attached to psychological illness, but not physical disease? We don’t discriminate or feel the need for secrecy regarding someone with diabetes, heart disease, or cancer. Yet those with a psychological illness often feel ashamed and feel the need for secrecy. People are generally not reluctant to admit they have liver disease, pneumonia, or high blood pressure, but many are reluctant to admit they have a psychological illness.

We should not define people by their illnesses, whether physical or psychological. When we say we have appendicitis, cancer, or high blood pressure, that does not define who we are; we are much more than that.  We tend to use the verb "to be" when referring to a psychological illness; for example, “she is bipolar” or “he is schizophrenic.” Instead, we should use the verb "to have"; for example, “she has bipolar disorder” or “he has schizophrenia.”  The difference is significant and important.

We often hear someone say, “Diabetes runs in our family” or “We have a history of heart disease in our family,” but rarely does anyone say that a psychological illness runs in their family. Our family tree can give us an unhealthy body, but it can also give us an unhealthy mind. We can be very accepting of the genetic cards we are dealt with in regard to ailments such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, yet not when it comes to substance abuse, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or other psychological illnesses. We should not be ashamed of a genetic predisposition to mental illness, nor should there be a stigma attached to it.

We would not categorize or stereotype someone with diabetes negatively, but we tend to do so when someone has a psychological illness such as depression. In both cases, there is a malfunction or chemical imbalance inside the body. Therefore, we must change the way we perceive mental illness. Rather than look at it as a defect or weakness, we need to reframe our thoughts.

We would not think less of someone with heart disease or cancer, yet we place a stigma on those with psychological illness. Those who experience mental illness are experiencing an organ malfunction, just like someone with a physical illness. A patient with Type 1 diabetes does not produce enough insulin and has no control over this. We cannot control how our brain functions any more than we can control how our liver or pancreas functions. So, when our brain malfunctions, we should seek professional treatment, just as we would if our other organs were not working correctly.

In my book, Psychological First Aid: Removing the Stigma and Reframing the Way We Think About Mental Illness, I provide a framework for mental health treatment similar to that for physical injury or illness. I seek to categorize signs and symptoms of mental illness into three levels – mild, moderate, and severe – in the same way as physical injuries are categorized when someone seeks medical first aid, and I suggest treatment options. People should not feel ashamed to seek treatment for a mental health illness. Let us remove the stigma now. Together, we can.